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Can an iPad or Some Other Form of Technology Transform Education for Our Kids and Their Failing Schools?

Fifty years ago, no one could have conceived of an invention as revolutionary as the Internet, let alone the iPad. But neither would anyone then have guessed that educational progress would remain stagnant for the next half century.

Since the 1960’s, academic achievement has remained relatively flat. In fact, American students have been losing ground compared to their international peers. Graduation rates have stagnated, and achievement gaps persist.

But one local school board has a plan. It will equip kindergarten children with the latest in communications and computing technology.

The Auburn, Maine school department has voted to provide all 284 kindergarten children and their teachers in the district with new iPad2 Tablets. School officials are hoping the $200,000 initiative will boost literacy rates from about 62 percent, where they currently hover, to 90 percent. School Superintendent Tom Morrill called the plan a “game changer.” Committee member Thomas Kendall said the initiative would “revolutionize education.”

It’s laudable that some would try to harness the power of technology to improve educational outcomes. But shoving the technology of today into the failing classrooms of the public school system will produce the same lackluster results. Education won’t be fundamentally reformed by taking the pencil and paper out of a child’s hands and replacing them with an iPad.

Which is not to say technology doesn’t have an important role to play in education. Freed from the constraints of the “four walls” model of schooling, technology has transformative potential. By letting technology transform how we deliver education, we can open up the rigid public education system to the benefits of the market, provide every child with access to a master teacher, harness the power of the Internet, and finally bring our education system into the 21st century.

Some children are already experiencing this fundamental transformation of learning. The Florida Virtual School is the fastest-growing online school in the country, and had more than 213,000 course enrollments during the 2009-2010 school year. 

Across the United States, more than 1.5 million K-12 students are taking at least one course online.

Many families are seeking online learning options because they democratize access to a quality teacher. Education researchers have found that access to a quality teacher at the top of his or her game can equate to an entire year of additional learning for a student. Being subjected to an ineffective teacher, by contrast, can spell disaster for the learning trajectory of a child.

Moreover, online learning can ensure that a child living in a rural area, for example, has access to a great physics teacher or even a native French teacher. It can also meet a wide range of student learning needs, from a child who needs remedial education to the child who wants access to Advanced Placement courses.

In his seminal book "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns," Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen writes that “educators have seen computers reinvent many other professions. As a result, they have invested heavily in computers. In 1981, there was one computer for every 125 students in schools. By 1991 there was one for every 18; and in 2000, there was one for every five students.”

The Auburn school district, with its plan to give every six-year-old an iPad, is supersizing that approach. Christensen goes on to note that “teachers use them [computers] to supplement and reinforce the existing teaching model. As such, computers add cost while failing to revolutionize the classroom experience.”

While it’s estimated that teachers currently spend less than 20 percent of their time helping students individually, online learning has the potential to transform education by making the child the center of the learning experience.

What is more, online learning provides another school choice option, empowering parents to choose an educational option that best meets their child’s needs. It eliminates the physical roadblocks to a quality education imposed on too many students by tearing down the old “four walls” model of schooling. Assignment-by-zipcode policies can be rendered a thing of the past by ensuring the location of a child’s home is not the grounds by which the quality of that child’s education is determined.

For too many decades, children have been limited by a model of schooling in which every student in a class must learn the same content, at the same pace, from a teacher who has a finite amount of knowledge to offer. But online learning is on the cusp of revolutionizing American education by freeing the delivery of content and customizing learning to meet student needs.

We should be letting the power of technology transform how we deliver education, not trying to shoehorn it into the corners of our outdated, factory-style public education system. Unfortunately, Maine’s iPad policy represents the latter approach. If Maine really wants to increase academic achievement and be on the cutting edge of the school reform movement, it would allow students to take their money and technology to a school of their choice, including virtual schools.

Lindsey M. Burke is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation

Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in education policy at the Heritage Foundation.